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Conflict Management of Territorial Disputes

Summary and Keywords

Despite the decline in interstate wars, there remain dozens of interstate disputes that could erupt into diplomatic crises and evolve into military escalation. By far the most difficult interstate dispute that exists are territorial disputes, followed by maritime and river boundary disputes. These disputes are not only costly for the states involved, but also potentially dangerous for states in the region and allies of disputant states who could become entrapped in armed conflicts. Fortunately, though many disputes remain unresolved and some disputes endure for decades or more than a century, many other disputes are peacefully resolved through conflict management tools.

Understanding the factors that influence conflict management—the means by which governments decide their foreign policy strategies relating to interstate disputes and civil conflicts—is critical to policy makers and scholars interested in the peaceful resolution of such disputes. Though conflict management of territorial and maritime disputes can include a spectrum of management tools, including use of force, most conflict management tools are peaceful, involving direct bilateral negotiations between the disputant states, non-binding third party mediation, or binding legal dispute resolution. Governments most often attempt the most direct dispute resolution method, which is bilateral negotiations, but often, such negotiations break down due to uncompromising positions of the disputing states, leading governments to turn to other resolution methods. There are pros and cons of each of the dispute resolution methods and certain factors will influence the decisions that governments make about the management of their territorial and maritime disputes. Overall, the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes is an important but complicated issue for states both directly involved and indirectly affected by the persistence of such disputes.

Keywords: territorial dispute, conflict management, settlement, resolution, domestic politics, issue salience, empirical international relations theory


Of all the issues disputed by states, territorial disputes are by far the most conflictual and burdensome; they often also affect regional and international security. In many cases, such disputes can be very costly, not only in terms of military defense or threats of force to take the disputed territory or maritime area but also in lost revenue, sometimes lost trade between the disputing states, and the costs of rivalry that often result from such disputes. The frequent flare-ups and diplomatic crises that occur in the South China Sea between the disputant states is a testament to the difficult of dispute resolution. Although an International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) arbitration panel ruled against China’s claims for islands in the South China Sea, China has continued to ignore international law by reclamation of reefs, shoals, and rocks, making them into militarized islands.

The resolution of such territorial and maritime disputes yields significant benefits for the adversarial states, including the reduction of future armed conflict, rivalry termination, and increased economic gains. Yet these disputes are often difficult to resolve, leading to years or decades of stalemate and sometimes armed conflict. In several cases, states are resistant to attempt resolution of their disputes because they can take advantage of the disputes as bargaining leverage linked with other disputed issues, leaving little incentives to attempt resolution. In these cases, the peaceful resolution of the disputes is less likely, and the threat of militarized conflict continues for the disputing states.

When states involved in territorial disputes do attempt peaceful resolution, leaders and governments have several options. The most common but the most ineffective means of peaceful resolution is bilateral negotiation between the adversarial states. Though it is the least costly and most direct means of resolution, bilateral negotiations often involve multiple stages and only sometimes lead to resolution. This is mainly due to the challenge of dividing intangible value of the disputed areas, especially if they hold significant nationalist or symbolic value or high-level tangible resources, such as oil, that states are unwilling to let go. Mediation by nonbinding third parties can be another strategy states use to resolve disputes. The most effective in terms of compliance but also the most costly are arbitration and adjudication, which are legally binding resolution methods. Not only do states make a choice about whether to attempt peaceful resolution of their disputes, but they also need to consider which forum would be the most effective. There are several factors that influence the strategic selection of peaceful resolution methods, and there are also different outcomes depending on the resolution strategy attempted.

The purpose of this study is to examine and review the empirical research conducted about (a) the factors that influence peaceful conflict management of interstate disputes involving disputed territorial rights and (b) the types of peaceful conflict resolution that states pursue and the factors that make certain resolution venues more or less likely to be used. The study begins with an overview of the broad literature on territorial disputes as an issue type in international relations, followed by an overview of theories, variables used, and empirical findings of research on conflict management of these types of disputes. Overall, there have been significant strides made in understanding the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, yet there are also competing findings, which encourage further research in this important area of study in conflict management.

Territorial Disputes in the Issues Approach to International Relations

Early research on territorial disputes from the 1960s and 1970s examined factors clearly biased toward the dominant paradigm of realism. The main question, in line with realist thinking, was about which factors influenced the likelihood of armed conflict (Boulding, 1962; Luard, 1970; Midlarsky, 1975; Richardson, 1960, Starr & Most, 1976). Later research from the 1980s to the present not only relaxed realist assumptions but began focusing on other aspects of territorial disputes rather than the main question of causes of armed conflict, also addressing questions about the initiation, frequency, duration, and intensity of territorial disputes and the link between territory and enduring rivalries (Goertz & Diehl, 1992; Huth, 1996; Kocs, 1995; Mandel, 1980; Senese, 1996; Starr & Most, 1980, 1983; Vasquez, 1996). The main explanatory factors examined through the 1990s were contiguity and geographic proximity, rather than characteristics of the disputed issue or states themselves.

As discussed in Paul Hensel’s chapter on territorial disputes, the study of territorial—as well as maritime and river—disputes unique from other types of interstate disputes is a fairly new agenda in international relations, rooted primarily in the writings about different issue types in international relations (Hensel, 2017; Mansbach & Vasquez, 1981; Rosenau, 1967). The issues approach, presented as a contrast to realism, argues that states have treated disputed issues with other states in a variety of ways and with different foreign policy strategies, not as uniformly as realists have argued regarding objectives of all states as survival and maximizing power. Therefore, the outcome of a dispute could be dependent on the specific type of issue—such as disputed territory—and related factors. The issue-based approach, focusing specifically on contentious issues, argues that “policy makers are concerned with achieving their goals over specific issues, rather than simply pursuing such vague notions as power or security” (Hensel, Mitchell, Sowers, & Thyne, 2008, p. 118). Framed in the issues approach, much of the research conducted about territorial disputes, starting in the 1990s, has agreed that territory is considered to be the most salient issue in interstate disputes and the issue most likely to cause armed conflict, compared to other disputed issues (Diehl, 1991, 1992; Gibler, 2007; Gochman & Leng, 1983; Goetz & Diehl, 1992; Hensel, 1999, 2001; Herz, 1957; Huth, 1996; James, Park, & Choi, 2006; Senese, 1996, 1999, 2005; Senese & Vasquez, 1993, 2003, 2008; Vasquez & Henehan, 2001).

Peaceful Dispute Resolution

States have several options to handle territorial disputes. The first option is to maintain the status quo and take no foreign policy actions regarding the dispute. This is quite common for states involved in these type of disputes; in fact, maintaining the status quo is by far the most common observation found in any data about territorial disputes. If leaders decide to attempt to resolve their disputes, it can be done in two distinct ways: through peaceful or militarized means. A state can use different levels of armed force to pressure the opposing state to change its position on the disputed area, or states can attempt to pursue peaceful dispute resolution, the focus of this study. If peaceful resolution is pursued, then there is another choice about which type of peaceful resolution and which venue states will select to attempt settlement. There are then several options for ways in which states can resolve their disputes peacefully, including bilateral negotiations, nonbinding third-party settlement (good offices, conciliation, mediation, and inquiry), and binding third-party methods (arbitration and adjudication).

Dispute-resolution methods can be aligned on a continuum depending on how legalized and formalized their underlying rules are. Bilateral negotiations are at one end of this continuum, being the least legalized method of dispute resolution, with legally binding arbitration and adjudication at the other end of the continuum as the most legalized methods of dispute resolution. Between these two methods are the nonbinding third-party methods of good offices, mediation, conciliation, and inquiry (Powell & Wiegand, 2010). Bilateral negotiations are the most frequently used dispute-resolution method (Allee & Huth, 2006; Huth, 1996; Huth & Allee, 2002; Wiegand, 2011), involving direct talks between the disputants with no third-party intervention (Shaw, 2003). This resolution method is much more political than legal, involving bargaining between the disputants about potential concessions and compromises on territorial sovereignty.

Nonbinding third-party methods—good offices, conciliation, commission of inquiry, and mediation—involve rules, procedures and decisions about resolution (Kratochwil, 1985) based on more formal and well-delineated sets of rules, which bilateral negotiations lack. Though all of these are nonbinding third-party methods, there are distinctions between them. Good offices occur when a third party is asked to assist the disputing states to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but not directly mediate (Cassese, 2005). Conciliation involves consideration of all aspects of the dispute, with a third party submitting a formal suggestion for resolution. A commission of inquiry attempts to ascertain the contentious facts about the dispute but does not engage in direct mediation. Mediation involves a third party, which plays a much more active role in the negotiating process based on rules established most firmly through the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, particularly regarding how states have the right to resort to mediation (Shaw, 2003). Mediation occurs when a third-party state or nonstate actor acts as an intermediary between the disputants, with the goal of reaching compromise or some consensus.

The legally binding resolution methods, arbitration and adjudication, are both based on formal procedures in which disputants agree to accept the award (arbitration) or judgment (adjudication). Rules of arbitration are more flexible than rules of adjudication (Shaw, 2003; Simmons, 2002); the contesting parties select the arbitrators, only one disputing state has to approve submission to an arbitration tribunal, and certain principles are agreed upon by the disputants in addition to international law. Much more formalized, adjudication entails the submission of a dispute by both disputants to the International Court of Justice, with a fixed composition of judges, strict adherence to international law, and formal rules of procedure outlined in Article 38 of its statute (Shaw, 2003).

Because there are multiple foreign policy options—not only the methods of peaceful resolution but use of force as well—there has been some debate when studying outcomes of territorial disputes or foreign policy dispute strategies about how these outcomes should be conceptualized and coded. Conceptually, the question is first whether governments make a decision to pursue a foreign policy strategy and, then, once they make this decision, whether they select to use force or peaceful resolution mechanisms or whether the decision is made in a combined sense so that leaders decide to pursue resolution through force (or peaceful resolution) at the same time. This question is important, because the researchers must decide whether or not they must deal with selection effects. When there has been a concern for selection effects, scholars have started with a sample of all territorial disputes and tested the initial policy choice of whether or not to resolve the dispute, and then they run a second model that reflects that a decision to resolve the dispute has been made, so the focus is to examine whether it is done through militarized force or peaceful resolution means and even possibly which type of peaceful means (Hensel, 2001). In studies that focus solely on peaceful dispute resolution and exclude armed force as a policy option (Allee & Huth, 2006; Crescenzi, Kadera, Mitchell, & Thyne, 2011; Gent & Shannon, 2010, 2011a, 2011b; Hansen, Mitchell, & Nemeth, 2008; Huth, Croco, & Appel, 2011, 2013; Lefler, 2014; Mitchell, 2002; Mitchell, Kadera, & Crescenzi, 2009; Powell & Wiegand, 2014; Shannon, 2009; Wiegand & Powell, 2011), the two models reflect a decision to peacefully resolve a dispute in the first place and then a decision of venue, using a two-stage estimation procedure, such as a Heckman selection model.

Another issue about the policy outcome is whether or not armed force and peaceful resolution are treated as exclusive strategy options. Some scholars (Huth, 1996; Huth & Allee, 2002) treat this policy option as three distinct choices that could occur in any given year, while others, particularly scholars involved in the Issue Correlates of War (ICOW) data project, include both policy options in the same observation (Hensel et al., 2008). Other scholars view the option of using force as something that could occur at the same time as peaceful attempts for resolution or that both policy strategies could be pursued multiple times in any given year. This problematizes the explanations for this critical dependent variable, given that the primary question about territorial disputes is about the likelihood of armed conflict and the likelihood of peaceful settlement. Data that reflect this view include the possibility of both force and peaceful settlement attempts in the same observation.

A further issue to consider when studying the dependent variable of territorial dispute strategy or outcome of the dispute is that use of armed conflict may not necessarily imply an attempt to resolve a territorial dispute. Much of the literature on the likelihood of war or other levels of armed conflict in territorial disputes does not examine use of force as a means to resolve the dispute, but rather as an outcome or consequence of disputed territory, which increases the risk of armed conflict (Kocs, 1995; Senese, 1996, 2005; Senese & Vasquez, 2003, 2008; Vasquez, 1993, 2001; Vasquez & Henehan, 2001). This latter line of thinking clearly implies the view that the primary concern of international relations has been, for a long time, to determine the causes of armed conflict, not the causes of peace. The resulting data code armed force as the superior outcome, so that if both foreign policy strategies occurred in the same year, the observation for that year would reflect only use of force and not settlement, so that there is exclusivity for frequencies.

Though the initiation and escalation of armed force are a significant focus of international relations research and the focus of realist-influenced scholarship, there is a growing amount of research that studies the likelihood of peaceful settlement of interstate disputes about territory, river, and maritime rights. Scholars have recognized for some time that interstate dispute resolution is as important, if not more important than causes of armed conflict, particularly since the options and strategies for dispute resolution are numerous (Frazier, 2006; Hensel, 2001; Hensel et al., 2008; Powell & Wiegand, 2010). Determining the conditions that increase the probability of peaceful dispute resolution could help to prevent conditions from worsening and states from initiating or escalating armed conflict. This genre of research has primarily examined the general likelihood of whether states will attempt peaceful resolution or militarized conflict to resolve a territorial dispute.

Themes about the peaceful conflict management of territorial disputes include probability of resolution, effects of territorial changes and peaceful territorial transfers, types of peaceful resolution method, and, specifically, type and degree of third-party intervention (Allee & Huth, 2006; Ben-Yehuda, 2004; Gibler & Tir, 2010; Goertz & Diehl, 1992; Hensel, 1996, 2001; Hensel et al., 2008; Huth, 1996; Huth & Allee, 2002; James et al., 2006; Kacowicz, 1994; Powell & Wiegand, 2010; Rasler & Thompson, 2006; Senese, 1996, 2005; Tir, 2003, 2006; Tir & Diehl, 2002).

Existing literature has been somewhat limited regarding how peaceful resolution occurs and through which methods, but a growing number of studies has focused particularly on the selection of venue in peaceful dispute resolution (Allee & Huth, 2006; Gent & Shannon, 2010, 2011a, 2011b; Huth et al., 2011, 2013; Lefler, 2014; Mitchell, 2002; Owsiak & Mitchell, 2017; Powell & Wiegand, 2014; Simmons, 2002; Wiegand & Powell, 2011). There are a few comprehensive datasets that have collected event data about the specific type of peaceful settlement attempt. The ICOW data project provides the most extensive data—on territorial claims from 1816 to 2001, maritime claims from 1900 to 2001, and river claims from 1900 to 2001—and includes both armed conflict and peaceful dispute-resolution-event data, including type of resolution method or venue. Variables included in the territorial claims data include start and end dates of settlement attempt, type of resolution method pursued (bilateral negotiations, good offices, conciliation or inquiry, mediation, arbitration, adjudication, other third-party settlement, or peace conference), and, if a third party was involved, which type of third party (such as minor powers, major powers, regional intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), global IGOs, and individuals). Other information useful for scholars studying the peaceful management of territorial disputes includes the extent of the settlement attempt—whether it was functional, procedural, or about a partial claim or an entire claim and whether concessions, if they were agreed upon, were major, minor, or relatively equal for both the challenger and target states (Hensel, 2001). Territorial claims in every region are available, while peaceful settlement attempts are currently available for the Americas and Europe, with the Middle East being the next region released (see ICOW, for access to data).

While Huth’s (1996) data included settlement attempts, in the first study of its kind to specifically collect data on conflict management of territorial disputes, the study did not differentiate between types of settlement attempts or have any predictions about factors that influenced the decision to use one method over another. Building on the Huth and Allee (2002) data about the escalation, settlement, and territorial concessions of 348 international territorial disputes from 1919 to 1995, Allee and Huth (2006) introduced distinctions between legally binding methods—decided by both disputing states—and bilateral negotiations. A useful aspect of this dataset is that it includes as the unit of analysis rounds of negotiations that occur between the disputing states in their attempt to agree to arbitration or adjudication. This means the data are not based on dyad year, but rather on actual negotiation attempt, providing 1,490 rounds of negotiations in the data. Subsequent data collection by Huth et al. (2011) added data on territorial disputes from 1945 to 2000 on whether dispute settlement involved legal settlement compared to bilateral negotiations, while Huth et al. (2011, 2013) added a measure of the strength of states’ legal claims to the disputed territory.

Another useful dataset is the International Border Agreement Dataset (IBAD), which focuses exclusively on the peaceful settlement of border disputes specifically from 1816 to 2001 (Owsiak, Cuttner, & Buck, 2016). The primary contribution of this dataset is that it provides significant details about de jure dispute resolution, including how the border dispute was settled (negotiations, mediation, arbitration, adjudication, force, or other), who the third party actor was (if one was involved), whether the disputing states involved colonial powers, and the compliance of the settlement. The main distinction between this dataset and the previous two discussed datasets is that IBAD focuses on the actual dispute settlement agreement, not the attempts to settle a territorial dispute or the behavior of a state before actual settlement occurs. To be recognized as a de jure settlement, it must include an international border agreement and not just an attempt to settle a border dispute. Both dyadic and monadic, state-specific measures of territorial threats are available within this data project. These data are available at Andrew Owsiak’s home page.

As with research in conflict management of other disputed issues and studies that examine causes of armed conflict, there is emphasis on some factors, while others are treated strictly as controls, with no or limited theoretical backing. Factors believed or found to be influential on territorial dispute settlement include value of territory, history of militarized conflict, record of peaceful territorial transfers, regime type, past win/loss record, number of democracies in the international system, domestic accountability of leaders, and domestic legal system. These multiple factors can be categorized into three main areas that have strong theoretical mechanisms to explain peaceful resolution of territorial disputes: (a) relations between the disputing states, (b) characteristics of disputing states, and (c) characteristics of the disputed territory. The first category reflects some of the traditional realist arguments about territorial disputes, while the second category is rooted heavily in the domestic politics approach to international relations. The third category, characteristics of the disputed territory, is rooted in the issues approach to international relations discussed earlier.

Relations Between Disputing States

Given that the realist approach dominated international relations, and particularly the study of conflict and security issues, for so long, it should not be surprising that factors rooted in the realist tradition are examined with regard to territorial disputes. What is different, though, is how scholars have taken factors, mainly military balance ratios and alliances, and tested whether these conditions influence not just likelihood of peaceful dispute resolution but specifically the type of resolution attempt. Huth’s (1996) book on territorial disputes stands out as the preeminent study of “modified” realist factors tested against issues at stake and domestic politics. The overall results indicate that several factors related to the “international context,” which include balance of military forces, influence the likelihood of dispute settlement. Unlike issues at stake and domestic factors—mainly democratic norms—which have a positive influence on dispute settlement, military capabilities have a negative effect on the likelihood of dispute settlement, regardless of whether the ratio signifies power asymmetry or power parity (Huth, 1996). One study examines military balance as a factor that could influence type of settlement method specifically for democratic dyads (Ellis, Mitchell, & Prins, 2010), finding that bilateral negotiations are two times as likely to occur when disputing states have power parity compared to power asymmetry.

A number of other studies, which focus on other key factors but control for ratio of military balance, find, like Huth (1996), that power relations between the disputing states influence the choice of resolution method (Allee & Huth, 2006; Gent & Shannon, 2010; Hansen et al., 2008; Hensel, 2001; Hensel et al., 2008; Mitchell, 2002; Shannon, 2009; Simmons, 2002). Focusing specifically on the selection of legal dispute settlement, these studies find that legal settlement—through arbitration or adjudication—is more likely if the disputing states have relative power parity. The logic is that the more powerful state in a dyad is unlikely to trust and accept third-party judgments, while states with relative power parity are more willing to trust binding resolution outcomes. For example, Simmons (2002) shows that arbitration is much less likely when there is greater power asymmetry between disputing states, while Mitchell (2002) similarly demonstrates that third-party involvement in dispute resolution decreases as power asymmetry increases. A contrary finding is from Lefler (2014), who finds that disputing states with power asymmetry are more likely to seek international organization mediation or adjudication. Either way, it is clear that power relations influence choice of dispute resolution.

Another factor echoing the realist argument and signifying the relations between states is the existence of an alliance. Few studies have directly examined the role of alliances (Frazier, 2006; Huth, 1996; Owsiak & Frazier, 2014) between disputing states and the effect on dispute resolution, rather than just as a control variable. This literature suggests that binding resolution methods are less likely when the disputing states have a military alliance, because their common security interests may encourage more direct bilateral negotiations (Allee & Huth, 2006; Huth, 1996; Leeds, Long, & Mitchell, 2000). Key findings include those of Huth (1996), who demonstrates that when disputing states have common security ties, the likelihood of peaceful settlement increases by nearly 17%. In a study on the likelihood of mediation in territorial disputes, Frazier (2006) finds that when a third party is allied with one of the disputing states, this relationship does not influence the likelihood of third-party mediation in territorial militarized interstate disputes (MIDs).

Past relations between the disputing states is also an important factor, one with the strongest findings in the literature thus far. Past relations can include a history of failed or successful settlement, a history of armed conflict, a history of defeat in armed conflict, and past experience using specific dispute-resolution methods. Recent past peaceful settlement attempts within a dispute play an important role, as previous failed settlement attempts increase pressure to undertake further action to settle a particular dispute (Hensel et al., 2008). Focusing specifically on type of settlement attempt, a history of failed settlement attempts within a dyad increases the likelihood of third-party assistance (Hensel, 1999, 2001), as does a higher number of previous successful resolution attempts, which is positively related to the likelihood of binding methods (Gent & Shannon, 2010). Hensel, Allison, and Khanani (2009) study the effect of past territorial integrity obligations—as measured by settlement treaties—on the effects of territorial changes. Their finding is that peaceful territorial treaties have no effect on the likelihood of future peaceful territorial change. In a study on border disputes specifically, Owsiak (2012) finds that once states sign a settlement agreement over a disputed border, the disputing states are less likely to use armed conflict over any issue.

A record of past militarized conflict can also influence the likelihood of peaceful dispute-resolution efforts. One explanation for this relationship is that states may have learned that peaceful settlement is less costly and could perhaps offer greater prospects for success than militarized conflict (Hensel, 2001). Similarly, Hensel et al. (2008, p. 127) find that states are more likely to pursue peaceful settlements in general “when they have a history of recent militarized conflict over the same issue and/or a history of recent failed attempts to settle the same issue peacefully.” Ellis et al. (2010) argue that a history of militarized conflict will make it more likely for democratic states specifically to seek third-party dispute resolution. Their finding is that democratic dyads are 50% less likely to pursue third-party assistance in disputes when the states in the dyad have been involved in no or little past militarized conflict. This finding supports the argument that past armed conflict can strongly influence the selection of resolution method.

Taking a different approach to past experience, other research has examined the idea of forum shopping based on the challenger states’ past win/loss records. Powell and Wiegand (2014) and Wiegand and Powell (2011) demonstrate that past win/loss record greatly influences the choice of dispute-resolution method, specifically showing that after winning territorial concessions in a past territorial dispute through legally binding methods, states are more likely to trust third-party methods, both binding and nonbinding. First, Wiegand and Powell (2011) study how challenger states will use their own record of wins and losses, and also the record of wins and losses for the target state, to help them determine the probability of winning in a territorial dispute resolution. Their main finding is that challenger states that had positive experiences using legally binding methods of arbitration and adjudication in other territorial dispute settlements are almost four times more likely to pursue the same methods again. Conversely, such positive past experience with binding resolution methods makes it less likely for such states to pursue bilateral negotiations. Adding to the win and loss record, Powell and Wiegand (2014) examine the role of domestic rule of law, finding that the interaction of these two factors helps determine the selection of resolution venue. Overall, they find that states with high rule of law are more likely to return to binding methods in other disputes only if they had positive experiences with binding methods in the past. Low rule of law states, however, do not seem to care about their past win or loss record when selecting the resolution method. While both of these studies examine past relationships between disputing states, the latter study bridges interstate relations with characteristics of the state.

Characteristics of the State

One of the key factors examined for influencing peaceful dispute resolution is domestic factors, particularly regime type. Most of the domestic politics factors influencing states’ choices regarding dispute-resolution methods are rooted in the democratic peace argument (James et al., 2006) or the territorial peace argument (Gibler, 2012). Research based on the democratic peace argument examines both the normative and structural aspects of democracy and their influence on states’ strategies in resolving territorial disputes. We know that democratic dyads are “more likely to adopt compromise solutions to problems as a matter of course” (Ellis et al., 2010, p. 374). Mitchell (2002) makes a systemic level argument, finding that the higher the proportion of democracies in the international system, the more likely it is that nondemocratic dyads will use third-party resolution methods. The logic of the theory is that a higher proportion of democracies in the international system provides an opportunity for the spread of democratic norms, which influences nondemocracies to consider strategies that democracies typically use, namely third-party resolution methods.

Studies focusing on regime type pay particular attention to the normative and structural aspects of democracy and their influence on states’ strategy of pursuing dispute resolution in the first place (James et al., 2006). Taking a normative approach, Dixon (1994) finds that democratic dyads are more likely to seek third-party dispute-resolution methods, though this study is not specifically about territorial disputes. Other studies further this analysis, examining whether states are more likely to pursue more binding, formal methods, including arbitration and adjudication (Allee & Huth, 2006; Ellis et al., 2010; Gent & Shannon, 2011b; Hensel, 2001; Huth & Allee, 2002; Lefler, 2014; Mitchell, 2002; Mitchell & Hensel, 2007; Mitchell et al., 2009; Shannon, 2009; Simmons, 1999, 2002). There is both theoretical and empirical disagreement about which type of resolution method is more likely among democratic dyads and states—bilateral negotiations or third-party methods. Some of this disagreement could be due to the lack of examination of the context of other factors, such as past militarized conflict, higher salience of disputed territory, and military balance (Ellis et al., 2010).

Some scholars have argued and demonstrated that democracies are drawn to legally binding third-party resolution methods rather than bilateral negotiations, mainly based on a structural argument of domestic institutions. Huth and Allee (2002) and Allee and Huth (2006) have several studies based on the democratic peace argument, which theorize that democratic states are more drawn to legally binding dispute-resolution methods when leaders are domestically accountable to constituents, a theory discussed in more detail later. Based on an affinity argument, Simmons (1999) finds that democracies are more willing to use more binding resolution methods, arguing that democracies have more affinity with certain international legal institutions and norms. Using a domestic accountability argument similar to that of Huth and Allee (2002), Simmons (2002) argues that international arbitration or adjudication provides democratic leaders with useful means to settle a dispute when domestic political opposition is likely to block a negotiated solution.

Other research about the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes shows somewhat different findings. Overall, James et al. (2006) find limited support for the democratic peace argument, showing that democratic dyads are not very likely to seek peaceful resolution in territorial disputes, while issue salience has more of an effect than regime type. Hensel (2001) argues that states involved in disputes over contentious issues like territory should prefer to have more control over the outcome of negotiations. This particularly study shows that democratic dyads are much more likely to use bilateral negotiations for peaceful dispute resolution, while they are much less likely to pursue third-party methods. This is confirmed by Lefler (2014), who finds that joint democracy is negatively correlated with third-party venues that involve partial decision control and hence are more likely to pursue bilateral negotiations. Shannon (2009) finds that democratic dyads are no more or less likely to attempt third-party resolution methods compared to other dyads. Gent and Shannon (2011a, 2011b) argue that binding dispute-resolution attempts can be just as costly to domestic audiences, since leaders can be punished for giving up control to an arbitrator or international court. Therefore, democracies are less likely to seek binding methods.

Similarly, in their analyses of peaceful attempts to resolve territorial disputes, Powell and Wiegand (2010) and Wiegand and Powell (2011) find that joint democracy has no statistical impact on states’ decisions to choose binding methods. These studies are consistent with the findings of Mitchell et al. (2009), which also demonstrate that democratic dyads are not more likely to choose third-party resolution methods. Most of their models of third-party settlement attempts indicate that joint democracy actually decreases the likelihood of resorting to a third party. Delving further into potential explanations for this lack of finding or negative finding, Ellis et al. (2010) find that democratic dyads will seek bilateral negotiations rather than third-party involvement in dispute resolution specifically when the disputing states have not fought each other militarily, the issues at stake are salient, and military balance is closer to power parity.

Rather than democratic dyads preventing conflict, the territorial peace literature (Gibler, 2007, 2012; Gibler & Tir, 2014) claims it is more complex than that; democracy arises with the resolution of territorial disputes, and hence future conflicts are less likely. Gibler (2012) argues that because the defense of homeland territory is so salient to individuals in society, territorial threats toward a state constrain leaders, in that they must defend the threatened territory with a strong military in order to prevent disapproval from the public. Once a territorial threat is removed through negotiations or similar peaceful means, leaders have no reason to maintain such large standing armies, for example, and conflict is more likely to be resolved through negotiations. With political opponents no longer supporting the government to defend the homeland territory through a strong military, a leader is likely to decentralize domestic political institutions, particularly by dismantling the large military that was used to defend the now defunct territorial threat. As a result of decentralization, it is more likely that domestic political institutions will democratize. Simply put, Gibler (2012) argues that an important part of the democratic peace argument has thus far been missing—territorial peace. To explain democratization and the democratic peace, the key factor to examine is therefore the lack of territorial threats. Owsiak (2013) has similar findings, showing that once states settle border disputes, states are more likely to experience higher levels of democracy. This research is a direct challenge to the democratic peace, and though it does not directly study the likelihood of peaceful settlement of territorial disputes as the dependent variable, it is a research agenda that contributes to our understanding of the complexity of settling territorial disputes.

A different approach to the effect of democracy on peaceful conflict management is research that examines how political accountability for democratic leaders affects dispute strategies and outcomes. This approach is heavily influenced by selectorate theory (Bueno de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, & Smith, 2003). Since leaders in democracies with larger winning coalitions are more accountable to their constituents, there is a higher degree of accountability, so to remain in office (or have the party remain in office), they should be particularly cautious about their policy decisions (Huth & Allee, 2002). This means that leaders should be hesitant to engage in any policies that are unpopular and threaten their reputation and subsequently increase the likelihood of domestic punishment. Therefore leaders should be sensitive to policy choices that could damage their political stability and avoid settlement options that contradict discourse about the disputed territory. Pursuing peaceful settlement, particularly when it involves the consideration of compromising or giving territorial concessions to the opponent can be costly strategies for leaders.

Support for the domestic accountability argument is provided by Allee and Huth (2006), Chiozza and Choi (2003), and Huth and Allee (2002). Chiozza and Choi (2003) examine the role of individual leaders, focusing on their vulnerability to domestic audiences, particularly time in office. They find, on one hand, that dispute resolution is more likely when new democratic leaders are in power, since they are less likely to be punished, having just received endorsement from their constituents. On the other hand, authoritarian leaders are more likely to attempt peaceful resolution as they spend more time in office, since they have accumulated the political experience of using power and are therefore less constrained by domestic audiences.

Also using the political accountability approach and writing in the framework of the democratic peace argument, Huth and Allee (2002) have several findings about dispute settlement and domestic accountability. The primary finding is that policy successes “may help deter political opposition, strengthen a leader’s hold on office, and increase the stock of political capital upon which leaders can draw to advance their broader policy agendas” (Huth & Allee, 2002, p. 71). This is demonstrated by analysis of a number of factors. First, as time passes after an election, democratic leaders are less likely and authoritarian leaders are more likely to seek negotiations for settlement in order to avoid potential domestic punishment. Last, they find that when the disputed territory is valuable and therefore controversial to domestic audiences, leaders are less likely to offer territorial concessions (Huth & Allee, 2002).

In a further study on legalized dispute settlement, Allee and Huth (2006) show that the likelihood of legal dispute resolution triples when the disputing states possess democratic political institutions. The argument is based on the notion that legalized binding resolution methods can act as more legitimate political cover for leaders who anticipate potential opposition to dispute-resolution attempts. The most effective strategy for leaders of states involved in territorial disputes facing potential domestic accountability problems will be to seek legal dispute resolution as a form of “‘political cover’ that helps them to counter domestic political opposition to a controversial settlement agreement” (Allee & Huth, 2006, p. 286). Therefore, when leaders face strong domestic political opposition, they are more likely to seek legally binding dispute resolution rather than bilateral negotiations or mediation, since the latter resolution methods involve decisions by leaders that could be unpopular. Further work by Huth et al. (2011) confirms that democratic leaders with a clear need for domestic cover are more likely to pursue adjudication as the means of peaceful settlement, in this case, specifically when states have weak legal claims to the disputed territory. In fact, democratic leaders with the need for domestic cover and with weak legal claims are 300 times more likely to pursue adjudication compared to bilateral negotiations.

Another type of domestic factor studied is the domestic legal system of a state—civil, common, Islamic, or mixed legal systems, which have some influence on the choice of resolution method (Powell & Wiegand, 2010). Using an affinity explanation, Powell and Wiegand (2010) argue that states select dispute-resolution methods that are most similar to the methods used in their domestic legal systems. The key findings are that civil law states are more likely to seek binding third-party dispute resolution, Islamic law states are more likely to seek nonbinding third-party resolution, and common law states are more likely to seek bilateral negotiations for dispute resolution. More specifically, they find that civil law states are two times more likely to seek adjudication over arbitration. The important contribution here is that there are other institutional characteristics of a state besides regime type that can influence territorial dispute resolution.

In addition to the regime type, level of domestic accountability, and legal system, states’ memberships in international organizations (IOs) can influence the likelihood and choice of peaceful resolution methods. This is an important potential factor, since IOs often play the role of mediators or arbitrators in peaceful dispute resolution (Abbott & Snidal, 1998; Bercovitch & Schneider, 2000). The overall theory about IO membership is that disputing states are more willing to go to IOs and other third parties in seeking dispute resolution since bilateral negotiations require a level of trust that disputing states often lack, especially in the case of some territorial disputes. The research on the influence of IO membership on territorial dispute resolution is fairly consistent, with findings supporting of each other.

The main focus on IO membership of disputing states is the emphasis on membership in IOs that call for peaceful settlement of disputes. When disputing states have signed and ratified a higher number of treaties calling for the peaceful settlement of disputes among members, it makes such states more likely to resort to nonbinding third-party methods (Hensel, 2001). Shannon (2009) has similarly found that as joint membership in peace-promoting IOs by states involved in territorial disputes increases, so does the likelihood of peaceful dispute resolution. With regard to specific types of peaceful dispute resolution, Shannon (2009) also finds that joint membership in peace-promoting IOs encourages disputing states to attempt third-party resolution methods, while bilateral negotiations are not encouraged. In a similar study, focusing on the influence of expanded democratic norms on the likelihood of territorial, maritime, and river dispute resolution, Mitchell et al. (2009) show that the greater the number of peace-promoting IOs that the disputing states in the dyad belong to, the more likely they will attempt third-party resolution methods. Hansen et al. (2008) likewise argue and find support for their suppositions that regional and global IOs will be more successful as third parties involved in dispute resolution of territorial, maritime, and river disputes when the IOs are highly institutionalized, member states’ interests converge more than diverge, and there are more democratic member states.

Characteristics of the Dispute—Salience of Territory

After domestic factors, the most extensive findings in the literature on territorial dispute resolution are studies about the issue at stake, specifically value or salience of the disputed territory, discussed more in detail by Hensel (2017) in this volume, “Territory and contentious issues” (Hensel, 2017). One could effectively argue that dispute resolution heavily depends on how the disputing states value the disputed territory. The research on salience of the dispute and the specific values that the disputed territory holds is significant and informative. The evidence of territorial disputes being salient compared to other issues is quite strong. States seem to care about disputed territory more than other disputed issues (Goertz & Diehl, 1992; Hensel, 2001; Huth, 1996; Owsiak & Mitchell, 2017; Senese, 1996; Senese & Vasquez, 2003, 2008; Vasquez, 1993, 2009). As with earlier research on the issues approach in international relations, Hensel (2001) argues that because different disputed issues in international relations have different levels of salience, scholars should treat them distinctly in research. Compared to other contentious issues, Hensel et al. (2008) show that level of issue salience is a major factor in determining the likelihood of peaceful settlement attempts. Relative to maritime disputes, territorial disputes have a higher degree of salience, and they are significantly more likely to be subject to peaceful settlement. However, they also find that despite high salience level, attempts at dispute resolution of territorial claims are also less likely to be successful. These different salience levels are also associated with varied types of dispute resolution; while territorial disputes are more likely to be settled through bilateral negotiations and arbitration, river disputes are more likely to be resolved through nonbinding third-party methods, and maritime disputes are more likely to experience settlement through formal legal methods (Owsiak & Mitchell, 2017).

Since it is well established that disputed territory is the most salient of contentious issues, further studies examine the variation within territorial disputes, examining types and levels of salience or value embedded in the disputed territory either naturally or in a constructed manner (such as nationalist attachment). The emphasis of these next studies turns to the degree of tangible or intangible value or some combination of each. Tangible value, also referred to as intrinsic value (Diehl & Goertz, 2002), can include valuable economic resources, strategic value, mainland territory status compared to offshore islands, and a permanent population (Hensel, 2001; Hensel et al., 2008; Huth, 1996). Intangible value, or relational value (Diehl & Goertz, 2002), can include ethnic links to the land, homeland territory status (compared to dependency status), or symbolic, nationalist value based on lost autonomy or feelings of attachment to the territory (Diehl, 1992; Hensel, 2001; Hensel & Mitchell, 2005; Wiegand, 2011). The ICOW data project on contentious issues provides data about salience based on a 12-point composite scale of tangible and intangible values, (Hensel, 2001; Hensel, 2017; Hensel et al., 2008). Of the possible tangible (six) and intangible (six) factors, the more there are in the disputed territory, the higher the salience score.

Hensel (2001) finds that territory with an overall high salience score is more likely to be the subject of bilateral negotiations, since more salient territory is treated by leaders with more interest compared to disputed territory with lower salience. In this study, he shows that higher levels of salience of territory make bilateral negotiations more likely, yet at the same time salience does not necessarily affect the choice of third-party resolution methods. Gent and Shannon (2010) show that increased salience makes leaders less likely to give up decision control, avoiding binding resolution methods, while Gent and Shannon (2011b) find that as the salience value of the disputed territory increases, nonbinding third-party resolution methods are less likely to occur. Still others find contrary results, indicating that more work is needed in this area. Mitchell et al. (2009) show a positive relationship between higher salience level and third-party resolution methods, while Allee and Huth (2006) demonstrate a positive relationship between legal dispute resolution and salience to domestic populations. Using a decision-control theory, Lefler (2014) shows that issue salience is correlated with the likelihood of nonbinding mediation. An interesting observation is that, with the exception of the study by Allee and Huth (2006), the other studies all use the same data (ICOW), so other factors of research design are influencing their divergent findings.

Tangible value of territory leads to more cooperation and settlement between adversaries (Mansbach & Vasquez, 1981; Rosenau, 1967; Vasquez, 1993). In an analysis of 20th-century territorial disputes (1950–1990), Huth (1996) finds that tangible values of territory—strategic and economic—influence the likelihood of dispute resolution. Strategically valuable territory is negatively correlated with dispute-resolution attempts, while economically valuable territory is positively correlated with settlement attempts. In a later study, Allee and Huth (2006) demonstrate that strategic value does have a positive influence on the likelihood that states will attempt settlement, but they also find that such resolution attempts are less likely to prove to be successful based on the exchange of territorial concessions between adversaries. Examining types of peaceful resolution methods, Allee and Huth (2006) do not find any relationship between the strategic value of the territory and attempts to settle the dispute via legally binding resolution methods. Similarly, Simmons (2002) shows that the legally binding resolution method of arbitration is less likely when the territory has strategic value, suggesting that such value makes states less willing to turn over decisions about sovereignty to a third party. The study also does not find any relationship between tangible economic resources present in the disputed territory and the likelihood of arbitration in territorial disputes (Simmons, 2002). Overall, tangible value of territory is influential, just in different ways.

Similarly, with intangible value, some studies show that territory with ethnic value makes settlement less likely (Huth, 1996). Contrary to Huth’s findings about ethnic value, Hensel and Mitchell (2005) find that intangible value, including shared ethnicity, homeland status, and lost autonomy, make peaceful settlements more likely. With regard to specific resolution methods, Wiegand (2014) finds that the higher the level of intangible salience, the more likely mediation will be used as a resolution method. Allee and Huth (2006) show that ethnic value, in particular, increases the likelihood of legally binding dispute resolution. This finding confirms the argument that ethnic value provides salience for domestic audiences, making legally binding resolution methods less costly for decision makers as domestic political cover. Thus, domestic political costs can influence the leaders’ decisions regarding the methods of peaceful resolution (Simmons, 1999).

Although it is not related to the disputed territory directly, another characteristic of the dispute that has been examined is the strength of the legal claim that states have regarding disputed territory. Huth et al. (2013) propose that leaders of states that have weak legal claims for disputed territory should be more likely to effectively reach agreement in settlement of territorial disputes. Their expectations are based on the fact that arbitration and adjudication embrace rule of law, provide unbiased forums for resolution, and require the parties to agree in advance to the settlement terms. Their theory is confirmed, finding that when there is asymmetry of the strength of legal claims by the disputants, leaders of challenger states are 49% more likely to reach settlement than when the parties both lack strong legal claims to the disputed territory (Huth et al., 2013). When settlement is successful, they also demonstrate that leaders of the challenger state with strong legal claims (66%) will achieve favorable terms in the settlement, compared to leaders of states with weak claims (14%).


It is likely that a discussion of the empirical research presented here would have not been possible before the 2000s. The relatively new focus on the active attempt to resolve territorial disputes—the most conflict-causing type of interstate dispute—has fast gained traction due to the emphasis on positive peace rather than just the factors that cause or do not cause armed conflict. An increasing number of conflict-management scholars are conducting research not only using assumptions of the issues approach in international relations but also emphasizing the role that conflict resolution plays in research on international conflict.

There are several general topics of agreement within the literature, particularly regarding the influence of value or salience of territory and the role of domestic politics, but there remain enough divergent findings as well. This suggests, and this review confirms, that there are different empirical approaches to testing similar questions. As discussed earlier, the first problem may be that it is unclear what the dependent variable should be—what aspect of conflict management should be studied? Are decisions to use force or peaceful settlement the same as decisions to attempt settlement in the first place or decisions to use a specific resolution venue over another? These are important theoretical and empirical questions that we must continue to consider. In another area, the territorial peace literature, the dependent variable has become the independent variable, so that these studies ask about the influence of settled borders or territorial disputes on democratization rather than how democracy influences the likelihood of settlement. Other research has also been studying the relationship between settlement of territorial disputes and positivepeace (Owsiak, Diehl, & Goertz, 2017) and the sequencing of territorial dispute settlement, conflict, rivalry, democratization, and peace. Last, not enough research has focused on the supply side of third parties and their motivations for offering to mediate in a territorial dispute. These relatively new branches of research, among others, indicate a rich opportunity for scholars to continue to study the conflict management of territorial disputes.


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